“James is all encompassing with Life Itself, tirelessly trying to capture everything that occurred in Ebert’s life”

 

 

 

by Steve Pulaski

“When did you first want to become a film critic?” is the question I get asked the most, second only to the obligatory “what is your favorite movie?” I always respond to the first question with the same story; I was a four-year-old boy, “reading” the “Tempo” section of the “Chicago Tribune,” and by reading, I mean looking at the pictures of the movies in there, cutting them out, and pasting them to a scrapbook I would make. When I finally developed the ability to read, I would “read” some of Roger Ebert’s reviews in the “Chicago Sun-Times,” and by read, I mean study and honestly look at his writing structure, often rereading sentences of his over and over that struck me as comedic or ones that hit home harder than I was ever used to being hit. To say Ebert was an influence on me and my writing is still a monumental oversimplification.

Even more of an oversimplification than what I’m about to say concerning Steve James’ long-awaited documentary Life Itself, based on the life and memoir of film critic Roger Ebert. I laughed, cried, talked back to the screen, voiced my own opinions, and indulged in some of the most gratifying and entertaining two hours of my life watching his documentary unfold. Frequently I wasn’t subtle in showing my emotions, pervasively tearing up when I saw the way his loving wife Chaz would help and assist Roger in any way, shape, or form he needed, and sometimes just laughing or cheering at the hilarious and often vulgar banter him and his colleague Gene Siskel would exchange on the set of their show “Sneak Previews.” While all this was happening, the whole time wishing, hoping, and grieving to be half the film critic he was, leaving a tenth of the impact he did on a culture and an industry.

Life Itself
Directed by
Steve James
Cast
Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Release Date
4 July 2014
Steve’s Grade: A+

The film chronicles the humble beginnings to the meteoric rise to fame Roger Ebert endured, coming from your average family in Illinois to becoming known and recognized at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign for his persistent editing and managing of the school’s newspaper, “The Daily Illini.” Eventually, Ebert became the youngest film critic to ever hold the professional position for the “Chicago Sun-Times,” the liberal, blue collar, working class paper that directly competed with the wealthier and more conservative “Chicago Tribune” right across the street. Ebert worked to breed life and an identity in the field where, before his time, film reviews were written by whomever happened to go to the movies that weekend under the name “Mae Tinee” – look at that name very closely.

It wasn’t long before Ebert became known in the newspaper circle, winning the Pulitzer Prize early in his career, developing a TV show with the “Chicago Tribune’s” film critic Gene Siskel, in one of Television’s most charismatic and checkered relationships in the medium’s history, to his personal bouts with alcoholism, to becoming one with the industry’s actors, directors, writers, and so forth. Numerous colleagues of Ebert speak out on his impact on an unrecognized industry, like film critic A.O. Scott of “The New York Times,” who labels Siskel and Ebert’s Television show as a work of “transgressiveness” for the medium, being that these two men were who they were, verbally fighting about each others opinions on film, not complimenting and making classy remarks like “I see your point” at the completion of each others sentences. They fought over opinions like you and your relatives do with political opinions and exchanges over the dinner table.


Ebert also made the casual man appreciate film for its aesthetics, its beauty, and its capabilities, commenting on the film medium as “a machine that generates empathy,” in a speech more beautiful than anything I could be given a year to cook up. He gave quieter independent films an outlet on his show with Siskel, so that you and I would know them more than just “some arty movie playing downtown.” One of the most touching segments in the film is when prominent filmmakers like documentarian Errol Morris and Man Push Cart director Ramin Bahrani comment on Ebert’s personal effect on them, with Bahrani giving insight into their relationship almost as if Ebert treated him like a young protege in a different field. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of a relationship with the man himself.

James is all encompassing with Life Itself, tirelessly trying to capture everything that occurred in Ebert’s life, and not only miraculously succeeding, but doing succeeding overwhelmingly, to the extent, one would assume, impossible in just two hours that were destined to race past, as they did. James develops on Ebert’s long checkered bouts with cancer, multiple different surgeries, to even showing the last few months of his life, which were largely spent in hospitals with a tireless Chaz right by his side. A cruel but necessary juxtaposition of events come when we see home video footage of Ebert walking with his step-grandson in Europe for lengthy periods of time contrasted with an ailing but determined Ebert struggling to walk on a treadmill at a rehabilitation facility, wheezing and becoming short of breath from just a few steps.

I hope if I ever encounter any form of cancer or potentially fatal disease I embrace it with a fraction of the courage Roger Ebert himself embraced his troubles with. Unlike Gene Siskel, who hid his bouts with terminal brain cancer from people other than immediate family, leaving others with a large, irreparable hole when his death finally came, Ebert was public about his illness, often going on Television, posing for magazines, and “talking” about his illness and loss of speech and the ability to eat and drink in many interviews. He wanted you to see him and know what he was going through. I seriously wonder if I would have that kind of social confidence in that situation.

James also isn’t shy in focusing on the criticisms of the film critic, from “Time” magazine film critic Richard Corliss in the “Siskel & Ebert” days, who questioned if Siskel and Ebert were cheapening criticism with their Television program antics. He also doesn’t edit out interviewers saying slightly derogatory things about the man, with Siskel’s beautiful wife even recalling Ebert taking her cab from her when she was eight months pregnant and how Siskel’s constant belittling and anarchic trickery made him “a rogue planet in Roger’s solar system,” Roger’s writer friend William Nack states. This only furthers Life Itself in its all-encompassing state, beautifully detailing every part of a life and not just the certain elements of it, effectively painting a memorable and almost insurmountable life of a man and an industry giant.

Life Itself is destined to be the most emotional, moving documentary I see all year, if not the most emotional, moving film I see all year. Its detailing of a life so grand, a person so complex, and a man so original and captured in the spirit of himself in a delightfully open way makes for a film that I struggle to summarize in a way that gives it proper credit. In that case, I close my review of my current favorite documentary of 2014 in a softly poetic way, rather than a didactic or smarmy way, republishing an ode to Roger Ebert I wrote on part of my eighth grade class in 2009.

Ode to Roger Ebert

Film Critic, Columnist, like a brother.
Reviews movies like none other.
Bias towards him, and the ones that came.
But other reviews can never be the same.
One star.
Two stars.
Three stars.
Four.
Others make reviewing seem like a chore.
I like Ebert for evermore.